Peter Nietzke and Elisabeth Blum, both architects and authors of the publication FavelaMetropolis, delivered an optimistic story about Brazilian slums like Copacabana and Favela-Bairro. It wasn’t that they were positive about life in the slum, which is perhaps the ultimate symbol of unequal metropolitan development. Rather, their story dwelled on the selfless work of architects to improve life in the slums. There is, for instance, the official programme to integrate Favela-Barrio (Rio de Janeiro) with surrounding, more affluent neighbourhoods by establishing public amenities at strategic locations so that people from different backgrounds and classes mix with one another in a quasi-natural way. Nietzke and Blum also see the legalisation of land ownership in the slums as a positive step because slum residents can at last act as owners of their property. They voiced their distaste for Mike Davis’s criticism of the ‘self-help’ programmes with which global institutions like the World Bank appease poor countries. In addition, they expressed their admiration for economist Hernando De Soto’s appeal to integrate the informal economy of the south in the global economy of the north.
This carefree attention for the role of architects made anthropologist David Harvey frown. His advice was to find out which social organisations are active in these slums rather than to follow official ideology. How do they think about these noble programmes? It may be fantastic that slum residents can now become land owners too, and that these residents are now treated in a ‘mature’ manner (as Blum put it), but that does not change unequal development in cities at all. Quite the contrary in fact. The most important effect of Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of social housing in Britain in the 1980s was a new wave of land speculation that pushed weaker groups into unattractive residential areas. Harvey noted subtle that ‘this is no more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals.’
Waves of idealism and market fatalism succeed one another in rapid tempo in urban development. The question which cities we want – and therefore which people we want to be – can only be answered by reconsidering the most important problem of historical capitalism: the ‘capital surplus disposal problem’. To make profit work at the end of the day, the ‘capitalist’, explained Harvey, has to reinvest and make even more money. To this end, it is important to have access to a disciplined workforce (preferably not organised), to sources (through colonisation if necessary), to markets (through the creation of a demand or the permitting of credits) and to relative monopolies (in order to defeat competitors).
The point made by Harvey was that not only politics but also urban planning has played an important role in solving these problems. For example, the major works by Baron Hausmann (and the availability of credit to future home owners) was the solution in France during the Second Empire to get capital and work working. A similar process took place in 1942 in the United States. Not only World War II but also the launch of an urban-renewal offensive (the rescaling of big cities and widespread suburbanisation) turned out to be an excellent way of lifting the country out of the Great Depression. Finally, today it turns out that the building boom in China is the saviour of the American economy, because it is a perfect outlet for capital that becomes available on the American property market.
According to Harvey, the fact that all historical successes of capitalism regularly ended in financial crisis – in France it led to the Paris Commune, in the US to the women’s and civil rights movements – reveals the true nature of capitalist urban development. It may have a success here and there, but it’s always accompanied by a crisis somewhere else. Neoliberalism may be able to postpone this crisis temporarily these days (by assuming that class or spatial inequalities are natural phenomena), but it shows that the middle-class has just one solution for its problem: ‘it moves it around’. With that Harvey had a sharp riposte to Nietzke and Blum: if we don’t understand how capital is generated, distributed and put away…then urban development – in the slums too – is doomed to be just a cog in this machine. And, if that’s the case then it could just be that architects maintain the system of inequality despite all their good intentions.